Saturday, December 31, 2011

Finishing 2011 with The Drop and Alpha Better Juice

Here are the final two books of 2011.

Tomorrow we'll post the full 2011 reading list, the results of two Internet reading "challenges" and my thoughts on the best reads of 2011.

Book 135: The Drop by Michael Connelly

Detective Harry Bosch returns in Michael Connelly's The Drop. Fans of Connelly's novels, and I count myself among them, know what to expect -- a tightly written, riveting thriller that keeps the accelerator to the floor from the first page to the last.

Yeah, Connelly's that good. And although I'm also a fan of defense attorney Mickey Haller, another Connelly character, I think Bosch is his finest creation.

Bosch is hard-nosed and uncompromising, yet clings to a romantic view of his job as a detective.  "Everybody counts or nobody counts" is the maxim that motivates Bosch in his crusade to bring justice to the forgotten victims of brutal crimes. 

That motto ensnares Bosch in a political tug-of-war between the L.A. city council and the police commissioner.  Councilman Irvin Irving's son is found dead. Did he leap from the seventh floor of his posh hotel room or was he dropped? 

Irving, "scourge of the LAPD in general and one Detective Harry Bosch in particular," asks that Bosch be assigned the case because he believes Harry will tell him the truth about what happened to his son "no matter how it falls."

The death of Irving's son isn't Harry's only case.  A hit on a 20-year-old cold case -- a spot of blood on the victim's neck -- belongs to a convicted sex offender. Results of DNA testing are overwhelming, yet that sex offender couldn't have committed the brutal rape and murder because he was only eight years old when the crime was committed.

How'd his blood end up on the neck of a murder victim?  The answer to that question leads Harry and his partner to a horrific discovery.

Two crimes to investigate and along the way Connelly continues to explore Harry's relationship with his 15-year-old daughter, conflict with his partner and a new girlfriend.

The Drop? Connelly's editors at Little, Brown could have called it The Bomb.

Book 134: Alpha Better Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

Alpha Better Juice is Roy Blount Jr.'s second collection on words with an emphasis on the way words sound.

Blount has coined a word -- sonicky -- to describe both the way many words sound and their meaning.

"I needed a word that combined sonic and kinesthetic," he writes. "I needed . . . to describe an intrinsic significant value that . . . does evoke meaning by a combination of its sound and its movement."

Blount takes exception to theoretical linguistics, which contends that the relations between words and their meanings is arbitrary.

"Any huckster, any animal caller, any lover, any poet, anybody knows better than that," says Blount. "The sounds of letters and the words they constitute, and the kinetics involved in their oral utterance, and the rhythms of their combinations, have inherent signficiant value."

Sonicky words, to name only a few, include bubble, fuzz, knickknack, skimpy, gobble, smooch and ooze.

Blount is best known for his humorous writing.  In Alpha Better Juice, he strikes a perfect balance; he's serious about words and how words sound, but he's entertaining to the point of evoking an occassional guffaw -- another of those sonicky words.

Friday, December 30, 2011

On War and Peace and Tales of Burning Love


Book 132: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

What is there for me to say about a book many consider the greatest novel ever written?
I could say that 21st Century tastes don't agree with 19th Century writing, but that's far too broad an observation.  Besides, I'm a Dickens fan boy, which eliminates that argument.

It's not the length of War and Peace that troubles me.  Novels that I read this past year by Stephen King, Margaret Mitchell and Larry McMurtry all weighed in at more than 1,000 pages. And all those novels demonstrated that a 1,000-plus pages can read like 220 pages, which is also true -- at times -- of Tolstoy.

When he tells the story of Count Bezuhov, Rostov or Prince Bolkonsky -- their misfortunes in love, financial woes or valor in war -- he weaves a compelling story. But when he doesn't do that -- and he doesn't do it a lot -- Tolstoy loses me.

By today's standards, War and Peace isn't a pure novel.  It's as much a philosophical treatise on the vagaries of war, the existence of free will in man and a dozen other musings as well as a loose history of the Napoleonic Wars.  

I prefer a narrative uncluttered by philosophical observation.

Finally, War and Peace is often portrayed as a celebration of the Russian spirit. I struggle with that. All of the people portrayed here, in any depth, are Russian gentry -- counts, princes and princesses.  Thousands of servants and serfs are only shadowy background figures. It is difficult, if not impossible, to truly capture the spirit of the Russian people without telling their story. 

More than anything, I just want to say I've read it -- all 1,386 pages of this Modern Library paperback edition. That's enough for now.  It's quite a lot actually.

Book 133: Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Tales of Burning Love, Louise Erdrich's most erotic novel, is the story of Jack Mauser, a North Dakota building contractor, and his five wives. 

Jack's first marriage lasted only a few hours. That wife walked off into a North Dakota blizzard. Between that marriage and his current one, Jack was married three more times.  He still sees all three ex-wives and is still in love with one of them.

It's the second marriage for his current wife. She's still married to husband number one who is in prison for life.

There's a lot of moving parts of Tales of Burning Love.    Jack fakes his own death after his house burns to the ground. Someone kidnaps his infant son in the middle of a blizzard. The first husband of wife number five escapes from prison. And all that is secondary to the stories the wives tell.

After attending Jack's funeral, his four living wives are stranded in a car in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard. To stay alert, and alive, the wives agree to each tell a true story, a story "you've never told another soul, a story that would scorch paper, heat up the air!" 

The stories (Erdrich has always had a penchant for slipping whole stories, stories that can stand alone, into her novels) do heat up the air even as they serve to tell us more about Jack Mauser and the lives of his wives.

Erdrich is skillful at drawing all the separate strands of a convoluted plot into a coherent whole.  She demonstrates that skill here as she brings Tales of Burning Love to a satisfying, and steamy, conclusion. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A fresh, original voice debuts in Pigeon English

Book 131:  Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English, short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize, introduces a lively and original voice in author Stephen Kelman.

The novel is narrated by 11-year-old Harri Opoku, who, along with his mother and sister, recent emigrated from Ghana to England. They live in a flat on the ninth floor of an inner city housing estate.

Harri's voice is unique and captivating. Kelman captures his 11-year-old bravado; Harri is alternately timid and bold, boastful and modest.  (He assures us that he's among the fastest runner in Year 7).  

A particularly fine touch is the way Kelman reflects Harri's understanding of the English language. The meaning of some phrases and slang completely elude him, while he quickly embraces the complexities of other street lingo.

Kelman captures, too, the push and pull of societal pressures that places temptation in Harri's path. His desire to be a good boy and to please his hard-working mother is balanced against his desire for acceptance by the local ring of adolescent thugs.  

Harri is at once naive, yet wise.  Like most 11-year-olds he does not yet know what he doesn't know, a condition that makes him vulnerable to dangers he does not even suspect exist.

The novel draws its dramatic intensity from the discovery of a student's body early in the story. Harri and a classmate are determined to solve the murder.  Initially, their efforts are comic as they mimic the language and methods of television's CSI. But Harri's investigation has not gone unnoticed and the comic aspect soon takes a serious turn.

Kelman makes only one misstep in Pigeon English.  There are a few isolated passages when he breaks away from Harri's narration to tell the story through the voice of a pigeon.  It is an unfortunate decision on Kelman's part. Clumsy and ineffective, those brief passages only distract from the power of Harri's voice.

It's easy to forgive such a misstep -- Pigeon English is Kelman's first novel. All things considered, it is a strong debut by a fresh and original voice. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Stranger's Child lacks passion, purpose

Book 130: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst is a simulacrum of a great novel -- exquistely written, yet curiously absent any passion or purpose.

Perhaps the novel fails because its central character, Cecil Valance, is on stage all too briefly. We meet Cecil in the opening section of the book, by section two he is already off stage, killed by a sniper in World War I.

In that opening section, Cecil, a promising young poet, arrives at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family. Cecil and George, the second of three Sawle children, are students at Cambridge. They are lovers.

During the course of Cecil's visit, Daphne, the youngest of the Sawle children, asks him to sign her autograph book. After he has departed, it is discovered that Cecil has scrawled a poem across several of the books' pages. Daphne is convinced it was written for her. George knows he is its inspiration.

The poem, Two Acres, becomes Cecil Valance's best known work. It will be memorized by a couple of generations of British schoolchildren and then forgotten as Cecil is destined to be regarded as a "first-rate second-rate poet."

Section two jumps forward a decade or more. Cecil is dead as is Hubert, the oldest of the Sawle children. George has married a humorless woman. Daphne is married to Cecil's brother. They have two children.

The novel continues to leap forward in time, finally arriving in the present day. As the story advances, the Sawle family recedes into the background as does Cecil's reputation.  New characters are introduced, including one grows up to write a controversial biography of Cecil Valance.

Comparisons to Julian Barnes' Booker-prize winning Sense of An Ending are inevitable. Barnes gives his narrator, and the reader, an emotional jolt with a surprise revelation that casts a magnetic influence over his entire novella and that commands a reader's musings weeks after the books has been completed and set aside.

Hollinghurst's novels lacks such resonance and reverberation. The novel, like the fictional Cecil's poetry, is quickly forgotten. 

The Stranger's Child is like an elaborately painted eggshell. Beautiful on the exterior, but its interior entirely lacking in substance.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Unlikely protagonists undercut The Sojourn and Lost Memory of Skin


An Austro-Hungarian sniper in World War I and a convicted sex offender are the unlikely protagonists in two novels that promise more than they deliver.

Book 128: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

Shortlisted for the 2011 National Book Award, The Sojourn is the sort of novel that contest judges love -- filled with weighty themes from the despoliation of innocence to the meaning of life and the horrors of war.

Jozef Vinich is an America who finds himself at war through a series of unfortunate events and misjudgments.  While an infant, in Colorado, Jozef's mother is killed after taking a stroll along a train trestle. 

Unsuccessful in America and mourning the loss of his wife, Jozef's father packs up his son and his trusty rifle and returns to his native Austria-Hungary. A cruel step-mother, two bullying step-brothers and an impoverished life as a shepherd await Jozef.

When war breaks out, Jozef lies about his age and enlists.  His skill with a rifle -- honed while hunting for food when not tending sheep -- leads to his assignment as a sniper.  

We follow Jozef through the war, his capture and subsequent imprisonment and his return home. During that return, Jozef befriends a pregnant woman. She dies giving birth and Jozef assumes responsibility for returning the infant to the woman's family. Clearly, it is opportunity for redemption for the death's bestowed at a remove during the war. 

The Sojourn breaks no new ground. Many of the scenes in the novel feel stale and predictable. Other war novels have told this story before, and told it better.

Book 129: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

A far more promising and original novel is Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.

It's the story of the Kid, a 22-year-old, sex offender living, with other sex offenders, beneath a highway overpass. The irony is that the Kid is a virgin who has yet to kiss a woman.

An egregious misstep in judgment led to his arrest and conviction.  The punishment imposed on the Kid is excessive and seems likely to follow him throughout his life. That's one of the points Banks seeks to make. The Kid isn't so bad, just unfortunate. He never knew his father and his mother abetted her son's addiction to pornography.

Had the novel remained focused on the Kid, it might have worked. Maybe.  The Kid is still a most unlikely protagonist. The trouble is that Banks introduces a second character, a college professor seeking to interview the Kid in support of his theory that sex offenders can reintegrated into society.

But in the course of the novel, the professor turns up dead. Either he killed himself, disconsolate that his wife has left him or because he was also a sex offender and the police were closing in or -- and this is where the novel really goes off the rails -- he was a spy who was killed because he knew to much. 

Really. A spy? Where'd that come from.

Banks never resolves the question of the professor's suicide/murder. And, after introducing the possibility of a shadowy espionage ring, I'm not sure he could.

Banks' dalliance with the professor also distracts and diminishes from the Kid's story, turning the entire novel into farce. What begins as a provocative and thoughtful novel, ends disappointingly.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Flavia stars once more in Bradley's enertaining I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Book 127:  I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

Setting out to prove that Saint Nick exists, Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley's delightfully implausible 11-year-old sleuth, captures a murderer instead.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is the fourth entry in Bradley's mystery series featuring Flavia, her father and sisters and the inhabitants of the village of Bishop's Lacey. It's as charming as the previous novels, which is to say very charming; very charming, indeed.

Christmas has come to Buckshaw, the de Luce estate, and with it a London film crew. Before filming can commence, a key member of the cast is murdered. Once again, Flavia must circumvent the local constabulary and her own distraction due to the imminent arrival of Saint Nick, to bring the murderer to justice.

With her flair for investigation, her love of poisons and her general knowledge of chemistry, as well as her skill as making her two older sisters' lives miserable, Flavia has quickly earned a place of prominence in English literature and in the hearts of Bradley's readers.

If you have yet to read a Flavia de Luce novel, any of the books will do. They are uniformly wonderful.


Book 126: Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Here's something original I've yet to say about a Kate Atkinson novel -- this book is awful.

It's Atkinson's third book and, as such, a dividing line between her first two books --  Behind the Scenes at the Museum, her splendid debut novel, and Human Croquet, which was good but not great -- and her recent novels featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie.

Those recent novels are truly fine books, well written and entertaining; everything, I'm afraid, that Emotionally Weird is not. I could say more, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for that. Pick up her first book, definitely pick up the Jackson Brodie novels, but give Emotionally Weird a wide, wide pass.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Night Circus wholly original, absolutely entrancing

Book 125: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 

Love and magic, so inextricably linked in popular culture, are antagonists in The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s alluring first novel.

The Night Circus is the story of a man and woman locked in a decades-long magic competition. They do not know the rules of the competition or its consequences. For many years, they remain a mystery to one another, competing in a shadowy vacuum, wondering if each person they meet might be their opponent.

What they do know is that the venue for the competition is a mysterious circus. Its tents and performers dressed only in black and white or shades of gray, the circus appears without warning in locations throughout the world. It is open only between sundown and sunrise. Its performers and everyone affiliated with it never seem to age.

The competition is the creation of two aging magicians striving to settle a philosophical disagreement about the nature of magic. In creating the competition they have ensnared, and disrupted, hundreds of lives, including the daughter of one of the magicians.

And in bringing together that daughter and an orphan boy, raised and trained by the second magician, they have unintentionally woven a spell -- not of magic, but love. 

Morgenstern’s two protagonist must ultimately settle the question of which is greater – magic or love.

In doing so, Morgenstern weaves her own magical spell. 

The Night Circus is wholly original and absolutely entrancing, a formidable first novel. It leaves me with two great wishes: that I had written this book and that on some future occasion, after the sun has set, I may visit this magical circus.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

King of the Badgers a disappointing effort

Book 124: King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

I still have not the slightest idea what Philip Hensher was trying to accomplish in the disappointing King of the Badgers.

The novel begins in one direction -- the faked kidnapping of a little girl -- switches directions rather abruptly -- gay lovers who run a cheese shop -- only to switch directions once more --an unhappy and overweight gay man who, to quote Mick Jagger, can't get no satisfaction.

Ostensibly, Hensher is trying to peel back the layers of Hanmouth, a small English town near the Bristol Channel.  Lots of authors have used the disconnected-yet-connected narrative format to much greater effect.  

King of Badgers never takes flight. The "connectedness" that Hensher seeks to develop never emerges and none of the individual stories prove interesting enough to elevate the novel. 

This is a disappointing effort by a writer vastly more talented than the material presented here.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Otsuka weaves a haunting, powerful tale in The Buddha in the Attic

Book 123: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Lyrical, yet muscular, Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic is an unconventional novel that relies on hundreds of voices to tell a single story

In less than 130 pages, Otsuka tells the compelling story of a generation of  Japanese women who travel to an unknown land to begin a new life with men who are strangers to them. The novel was short-listed for the 2011 National Book Award.

The unknown land is America. The strangers are Japanese bachelors, most years older than the young women, who labor at the bottom rung of American society -- itinerant laborers living in barns, shanties and tents. 

The women are a source of sex, an extra set of hands picking strawberries or plowing a field and, finally, the foundation of Japanese-American families. Families that are uprooted and relocated to remote desert or mountainous internment camps following Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II.

Typically, this story -- a sad chapter in American history -- would be told through the voice of a single narrator. The Buddha in the Attic draw its power -- and its haunting lyricism -- from Otsuka's decision to tell the story using hundreds of voices rather than one.

By doing so, she is is able to tap a wider range of experiences and to elevate the story from that of an individual to a people. This is an extraordinary novel whose story lingers long after the book has been put away.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Half-Blood Blues a gripping, compelling novel

Book 122: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
 
Half-Blood Blues is a melancholy composition of envy and regret.

Written by Esi Edugyan, and short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize, the novel focuses on a trio of jazz musicians. It ranges from Nazi Germany in 1936 to occupied France to Europe in the early '90s.

The trio is comprised of two Baltimore-born, African Americans -- Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones --- and Hieronymous Falk, a promising young trumpet-player. Falk is a mischling, a derogatory term used during the Third Reich to denote someone with only partial Aryan ancestry. 

Falk has a German mother and an African father. His mixed parentage places him a grave risk from zealous Nazis.

In the mid '30s, Falks, Griffiths and Jones are part of the Hot Time Swingers, a popular Berlin jazz band. After a run-in with Nazis, the three flee to Paris.  There two of the three – Jones and Falk -- begin recording with Louis Armstrong.

Shattered by his exclusion from the recording process, Griffiths resentment of Falk grows. He is envious of the young man’s talent, his opportunity and the praise that comes his way.  Griffith also feels threatened because he believes Falk is competition for an attractive woman who is briefly Griffith’s lover.

The war follows the men to Paris. Before the three can escape, Griffiths makes a decision that leads to Falk’s arrest. The young musician disappears and is not heard from again for decades.

When Falk does resurface, Sid must confront his actions and the emotions that drove them.

The treatment of blacks by the Nazis during World War II is a historical tragedy largely neglected by fiction writers. Edugyan is to be praised for her illuminating exploration of this important, but long-neglected subject. 

Her portrayal of Berlin and Paris in the hands of the Nazis -- and the ever present threat to Falk because of his parentage -- is gripping. 

Her portrayal of the musicians and their devotion to their craft is also spot on. 

Half-Blood Blues is a compelling novel from a gifted and insightful young writer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eugenides delivers old school novel with The Marriage Plot

Book 121: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

There's an element of old school to Jeffrey Eugenides long-awaited third novel, The Marriage Plot.

The plot is familiar -- Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard and Leonard, well, we're not sure about Leonard.

To say why we're unsure about Leonard or other aspects of the plot would serve to undermine a reader's enjoyment of this novel. We've waited nine years for this book, so what's the harm is waiting a little longer to let its story unfold.

I can say this much -- when they first meet Mitchell, Madeleine and Leonard are all students at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Before it ends, Mitchell is traversing the world in search of spiritual enlightment. Madeleine and Leonard are setting up housekeeping, although that doesn't go as expected.

What separates The Marriage Plot from other novels with a similar plot is, of course, the book's author Jeffrey Eugenides.

The characters are finely drawn.  They are, at turns likeable and unlikeable; never so unbelievably good or irrdeemably bad as to be caricatures. Instead, they emerge as real people, someone we've known.

That's one of Eugenides' gifts as a writer, to bring characters to life. 

Another gift is that he is so closely observant of human nature.  The book is filled finely drawn passages that are beautiful -- not because of the language, although that's there -- but because those passages ring so true.

And there is a slyness to Eugenides' observation, a passing comment on life today that evokes empathy rather than mockery, understanding rather than contempt.

It's a wholly satisfying novel with an ending that is exactly right. The Marriage Plot was worth the wait.

Book 120: Death in the City of Light by David King

David King's Death in the City of Light was promoted as a non-fiction book akin to Erik Larson's The Devil in White City.

Superficially, the books are similar. The Devil in White City in the story of a serial killer in Chicago in 1983 when the World's Fair was attracting visitors by the thousands.

Death in the City of Light is the story of a serial killer in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II.

That's where the similarities end.  Larson's novelistic account is far and away the superior book.

King's account of Dr. Marcel Petiot never takes off.  All the ingredients are there, but the author isn't able to gin up any suspense.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Sisters Brothers wildly inventive; The Apothecary a satisfying tale for readers of every age

Two more books that I recommend:

Book 118: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers is an odd choice to be one of the six books short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize.

Not that it isn't good, it's a hell of an entertaining read. It's just that The Sisters Brothers is this unusual mash-up. It's a picaresque Western, a thriller with a heavy dash of noir and a meditation on morality and the meaning of life.

It's the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two 19th Century hitmen. They're bound to the gold fields outside Sacramento with a contract on gold miner Hermann Kermit Warm. Warm has gotten crosswise with the Sisters brothers' boss, the Commodore.

The Sisters Brothers reads like a Coen brother film. Think Blood Simple. It's dark and comic and wildly inventive.

(BTW, the cover of the English edition of The Sisters Brothers is absolutely cool.) 

Book 119: The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

In 2009, Maile Meloy published a short story collection, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, that was nothing short of terrific.

Now she's written The Apothecary, a novel for young reader. It's terrific too.

The Apothecary is told by 14-year-old Janie Scott. It's 1952 and Janie and her parents have just moved from California to London. Janie's mom and dad are screen writers and they've fled Hollywood to avoid an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Little do they know that the move will plunge Janie into far more dangeorus circumstances.

Janie's schoolmate, Benjamin Burrows, is the son of the local apothecary. He's doing more than mixing elixirs to ease symptoms of the common cold. Benjamin's dad is part of an international network committed to using ancient transformative elixirs, compounds and tinctures to undermine tests of the nuclear weapons that are proliferating as Cold War tensions heighten.

The Apothecary is spell-binding with the right balance of evil teachers, young love, magical spells (or science masquerading as magic) and heroic acts by the youthful cast.

Young readers who are fans of Harry Potter will enjoy Meloy's first venture into juvenile literature.

That goes for older readers too.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

All Johnson's talents on display in Train Dreams, Cornwell soars in Death of Kings

Two terrific, and very different novels:

Book 116: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson captures the sweep of one man's life in the span of 116 pages.

This novella -- Train Dreams is so brief that it can't reasonably be called a novel -- is a remarkable performance and unlike almost any other book you care to name.

In telling the story of Robert Grainier, in the American West at the beginning of the 20th Century, Johnson ranges from the prosaic to the elegaic, from magical to dream-like to mundane.

It is a powerful and moving book that puts Johnson's considerable talents on full display.

Book 117: Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

In Death of Kings we approach the end of Cornwell's Saxon Series.  There are one, perhaps two books, remaining at most. I will be sad to see it go.

King Alfred has died. Uhtred, Cornwell's hero, anticipates a invasion by the land-hungry Danes in the wake of his death. 

Yet the Danes are not the only obstacle confronting Uhtred. He must also overcome the suspicions of churchmen, who mistrust him because he is a pagan and because he embraces much of the Danish way of life.

But Uhtred's heart lies with Alfred's daughter and so he gives his loyalty to Alfred's son, Edward, who is now the king.

Uhtred must contrive to keep the Danes at bay until he convince Edwards of the merits of his arguments.

To do so, he relies on brains as well as brawn in Death of Kings. Cornwell writes as eloquently of political machinations as he does scenes of battle.

But it is the battle scenes in which Death of Kings soars.  Men are tested in the brutal confines of the shield wall. Even as Uhtred receives a glimpse of his mortality, his arm and his heart remain strong, vital, and England remains free.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

King's Under the Dome a riveting read

Book 115: Under the Dome by Stephen King

A virgin no more.

In late October, I completed by first novel, Under the Dome, by horrormeister Stephen King.

It's a fat book, a tome, yet despite weighing in at almost 1,100 pages, the book is an amazingly quick read. In the author's notes, King said, "I tried to write a book that would keep the pedal consistently to the metal."

And to his credit, King has done exactly that.  An exceptional storyteller, King is the kind of writer who keeps you reading for pages and pages after you think it's time to stop for the day.

Under the Dome
is the story of Chester's Mill, a small, unexceptional Maine village. Unexceptional, that is, until one morning when an impenetrable dome, in the exact shape of the village's dimensions, suddenly isolates the village from the rest of the world.  Although minute amounts of oxygen and water penetrate the dome, even a cruise missile can't break through. 

King combines Lord of the Flies with Babbit as Jim Rennie, the owner of local used car lot and the town's second selectman, sees the dome as an opportunity to consolidate his control of Chester's Mill and eliminate the traces of his criminal enterprise.  Rennie, who urges his stooges to fall to their knees and join him in prayer, has corrupted numerous townspeople, including his own pastor, through the wealth generated by what may well be the largest meth lab in America.

Rennie's rapacity is offset by the crusading publisher of the local weekly newspaper and a former military veteran, who is seconds from leaving town when the dome comes down.

All of this is fairly straight forward, until King adds his unique touch by mixing in his traditional brand of horror and science fiction.  The children of Chester's Mill emerge from convulsive spells with dire warnings concerning Halloween. And, as for the dome, it's not the product of any earthly science. That's all I say about it's sources. If you plan to read Under the Dome, you'll want to discover it's true nature for yourself. And if you aren't going to read it, you don't care.

King's no stylist, but, as mentioned earlier, he's a superb storyteller, mixing popular culture with elements of horror and sci fi to deliver a satisfying read.

(I was delighted to see King make reference to Lee Child's Jack Reacher in Under the Dome.  A nice tip of the cap to a terrific series.)

Book 114: Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

Dangerous Laughter is a collection of bizarre stories: a high school boy who conducts a summer romance with a school friend's sister entirely within the confines of a darkened room; domes that fit entirely over houses, but soon grow larger and larger; a group of teenagers that virtually torture one another with laughter.

Millhauser is a stylish writer, but his stories will not be to everyone's taste. Certainly, they were not to mine.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Baseball Codes delivers

Book 113: The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow w/Michael Duca

The 2011 major league baseball season ends tonight with a World Serious title for either the Texas Rangers or the St. Louis Cardinals.

The season ends for MLB, but it doesn't have to end for the baseball fan. There is an entire lineup of baseball books begging to be read during the winter months.  The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow (with Michael Duca) is one of the all-stars in that lineup.

Like all professional sports, baseball has a fat rule book to control the action on and off the field. Unlike other professional sports, baseball also has an unwritten rules that have as much influence on the game as the rules presided over by the Commissioner.

In one lively anecdote after another, Turbow provides the reader with a guided tour of the unwritten rules of the game -- from running into the catcher to stealing base, from sliding properly to never -- ever -- showing up an opponent to perhaps the biggest unwritten rule of them -- cheating is OK, until you get caught.

Most baseball books are biographies of a player, capture a special season or series or are an expose of the game.  No one's ever written a book quite like The Baseball Codes. It's inside baseball at it's best.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Twenty-five years later, White Noise still teems with power, mordant humor

Book 112: White Noise by Don DeLillo

The shape of our fears has changed since Don DeLillo wrote White Noise in 1985.

In DeLillo’s mordant, prize-winning (National Book Award), post-modern novel our fears take amorphous shape: in an “airborne toxic event” created by a chemical spill, in waves and radiation, in the background noise of our daily lives, in experimental drugs, in the unknown expressed by noxious smells and men in Mylex suits.

Today, our fears are no less threatening, but more concrete: planes fall from the sky, pulling down buildings, forcing people to choose between leaping to their death or dying in a crush of concrete and steel; in removing our shoes before we can board an aircraft because of the threat of shoe bombs; in the chilling, perplexing phrase “home-grown terrorist” and the mythical promise of WMDs.

Bluetooth. Wi-Fi. Tablets. Smart phones.

What would White Noise look like if it were written today, 10 years after 9/11 rather than 16 years before that nation-transforming day?

So many changes since the 26 years when White Noise first appeared. The cultural context has shifted, yet DeLillo’s novel remains powerful – and powerfully amusing – because the fears DeLillo taps into have not changed.

NSA. TSA. U.S. Cyber Command. CSS.

White Noise is the story of the Gladney family. Jack is a professor at The-College-on-the-Hill, where he is a pioneer in the field of Hitler Studies. Married five times to four women, Jack and his current wife, Babette, are parents to a brood of children and step-children. 

After toxic chemicals spew into the air following an accident in the train yard, the Gladneys must flee their home, although Jack resists.  "These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas," Jacks tells his family. "Society is set up in such a way that it's the poor and uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters . . . I'm a college professor."

Jack is briefly exposed to the chemical cloud and assured by some nameless man with a computer that he is dying.

Erectile dysfunction. Viagra. Cialis.

Both Jack and Babette share an extreme fear of dying.  Her fear leads Babette to search out chemical solace through an experimental drug.  She confesses to Jack that her in desire to obtain the drug, which promises to free her from her fear of death, that she engaged in a month-long tryst with the drug's designer. Her confession leads Jack down dark roads. 

On the surface, DeLillo explores our fear of death and dying. But a closer look reveals DeLillo is examining our fear of life and living. The threats to our existence – then and now -- are so pervasive, so unfamiliar and impossible to defend against , that death takes on a certain appeal. 

Google. Facebook. Twitter. Wikipedia. Dropbox.

The humor in White Noise is the darkest shade of black.  Some of the richest moments are when the Gladneys are all together (inevitably in their car) and engage in a serious, but uninformed discussions.  Discussions that a smart phone, Google and Wikipedia would stop before they started today.

Authors have been known to re-visit their creations.  I can’t think of another author whose take on modern times I’d like to read quite as much as DeLillo. 

DeLillo’s mordant, knowing voice perfectly captured the world of 1985.  It seems suited for our times too. 

*  *  *  *  *

The completion of White Noise brings me near the end of the Internet reading challenge issued by The Roof Beam Reader. The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. The challenge began in February, so I am in good position with a few months remaining.

I have started Mr. King's Under the Dome. It's fat book, but once it's finished I will have only two books remaining:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Alternates:
Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich  

Friday, October 21, 2011

Millard weaves a rich tale of murder and madness in Destiny of the Republic


Book 111: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

It's an almost impossible task for a writer to create and sustain narrative tension when the reader already knows how the story is resolved.

Impossible for most, perhaps, but not Candice Millard.

Her first history, the riveting The River of Doubt, chronicled Teddy Roosevelt's arduous journey down an uncharted Amazon river.  Students of history knew Roosevelt survived the journey, yet Millard had the reader hanging on every sentence.

Teddy's survival was known, but just how narrow his escape from death wasn't.  Through Millard's vivid prose, the reader was able to understand the extent of Roosevelt's courage and tenacity, and just how closely he came to death.

Millard once more fashions familiar material into a gripping tale in her new history, Destiny of the Republic, an account of the assassination of President James Garfield. 

Packed into less than 300 pages, Destiny of the Republic ranges from Garfield's reluctant nomination as the Republican candidate for president in 1880 to his election and subsequent assassination to his brave, but futile fight for life.  

Garfield's foil is his assassin Charles Guiteau, a frustrated office-seeker who is convinced that God wants him to kill the president and that Americans will proclaim him a hero for gunning down Garfield in cold blood.  Guiteau anticipates that both fame and fortune will be his.  

Garfield and Guiteau are not the only figures who step from the pages in vivid relief in Millard's fine account. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell and British surgeon Joseph Lister have cameo roles whose importance far outweighs their brief appearance in these pages.

Millard illustrates how Garfield's assassination changed the course of the lives of Vice President Chester Arthur and D.C. physician Willard Bliss -- one for good, the other's reputation tarnished forever.  

Arthur was an ally of Garfield's most implacable political opponent, New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. Many Americans briefly believed that Arthur and Conkling conspired with Guiteau to assassinate the president. Many more were concerned that Arthur, who had never held elective office prior to the vice presidency, would be Conkling's puppet once he ascended to the presidency.

But Athur, grief-stricken by Garfield's death, emerged as his own man.  He shook off Conkling's control and honored Garfield's legacy during his single term in office.

Bliss joins Guiteau as the villain of this sad tale.  He emerges as an insecure man more concerned for his reputation than in saving the president's life.  

And it is that story, the stubborn ignorance and arrogance of the medical community, which doomed Garfield quite as much as Guiteau's bullets, that makes for the most interesting, yet dismaying, part of Millard's book. 

Left untreated, it is likely Garfield would have survived. Instead, Bliss and other medical men probed his wound with their unsanitary fingers and medical utensils. When he died, Garfield's body was riddled with infection.

As Millard illustrates, Garfield died, not from the wounds he received from an assassin's bullets, but from the treatment he received after being shot.  In his trial, in his own defense, Guiteau argued that Garfield was not fatally shot, but died from malpractice. True, perhaps, although it did not persuade the jury that convicted Guiteau and ordered him hung.

As one would expect from a political history, there is also a political debate, concerning the spoils system, woven through the Destiny of the Republic.  The fate of that issue, which contributed to Guiteau's motives, was resolved soon after Garfield's death.

Admittedly, Millard has rich material to work with in telling what the book's sub-title proclaims is a tale of "madness, medicine and murder." Yet it is also clear that the author is richly talented.

And that she knows how to tell a story.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Katrina lacks power in Salvage the Bones

Book 110: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, a story of a poor black family in Mississippi, builds toward two climatic moments -- a dog fight and a hurricane.

The story is able to support one of those moments, while the other slips away along with the novel's promise. 

Unfortunately, it's the dog fight that emerges as the most powerful and telling moment of this ambitious novel.  It's the narrative high point of the novel and all that follows, including the impact of Hurricane Katrina is anticlimactic. 

Katrina arrives late and leaves quickly. The family's escape from rising flood waters reads like a cheap adventure novel and the family responds to the wake of Katrina'ss devastation as if it were the newest ride at a Disney theme park. 

Salvage the Bones is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch, the only girl in this family of five. Mom died years earlier give birth to the youngest child, Junior.  Dad is a distant figure, earning the occasional buck on a rare odd job. Most of the money he makes is spent on alcohol.

Esch has two older brothers. Randall's trying to find a way out of poverty via basketball. Skeetah is absorbed with his pit bull, China, who whelps a litter of pups as the novel opens.  Those pups represent the promise of a huge payday for Skeetah -- if they can survive all the forces bent on their destruction.

Skeetah and China form the most compelling story in the novel. The hurricane looms in the background, building in power over the Gulf of Mexico.  The father attempts to prepare for its arrival, boarding up the windows of their home, hoarding water, stashing food, but the four children give it little thought.

Esch is concerned -- rightly -- with her newly discovered pregnancy. Randall with a bad knee and paying for basketball camp. Skeetah with China's poor response to medication and an effort to poach one of the pups.

The children's effort to survive from day to day invests the novel with dignity and power that the storm leaches away.  One element that never rings true is Esch's focus on the story of Jason and Medea. She's reading, we're told, a book on mythology and see parallels with Medea in her own life.

It's difficult to ever accept this line of thought by Esch. What 15-year-old, black or white, rich or poor, is absorbed with ancient Greek myth? Not many.

Esch's preoccupation with mythology ultimately emerges as an authorial device. Through Esch, Ward characterizes Katrina "as the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone . . . "

It feels false.  Overwriting and overreaching by an author rather than a characterization that rings true. 

Salvage the Bones might have succeeded with only one story, either the dog or the hurricane. Pick one and tell it. But the two stories throw the narrative off balance with the result that neither quite works.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Art of Fielding a book of rare generosity, insight and skill

Book 108: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach 

One hundred and seven books preceded The Art of Fielding in 2011.  One hundred and seven books of various quality, interest and appeal, yet none so luminous or evocative as this extraordinary first novel by Chad Harbach.

Set in Westish College, a small, liberal arts institution nestled along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, The Art of Fielding is the story of five intrepid individuals' search for perfection --  in love and life, in one another and on the Elysian fields of the baseball diamond.

Chief among them is Henry Skrimshander, a quiet, self-effacing student, who truly becomes larger than life when he steps onto the baseball field.  A shortstop of unassuming proportions, Henry is the rare athlete who brings elegance and intelligence to his craft.

Henry's own drive for excellence is a given a boost by Mike Schwartz. Catcher and team captain for the Westish Harpooners, Schwartz is Henry's friend, mentor and coach -- although an admittedly reluctant one:

"That was why he didn't want to go into coaching . . . He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself. And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily  en route to his final triumph . Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer as long as the suffering made sense."

Initially, Henry's suffering takes a simple form -- his willingness to endure one punishing workout after another, day after day, season after season, in the pursuit of the perfect and a championship season.  But Henry's suffering soon ceases to make sense.  The failure to grip the ball just so, a quirky breeze from off shore and Henry throws the ball beyond the reach of the first baseman. It sails into the dug-out and strikes Henry's roommate, Owen, full in the face.

Owens survives the encounter, Henry barely.  His streak of error-less games vanishes as Henry is suddenly unable to throw the ball with accuracy or confidence.

Schwartz, Owen, Westish President Guert Affenlight and Guert's daughter, Pella, all undergo their own unique forms of suffering.  It is as if Henry's errant throw has unstitched the bonds that holds their lives together. Now, all that remains is to see if their suffering -- and they are suffering mightily -- can lead to triumph.

The Art of Fielding is baseball as a metaphor for life, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as only that. Harbach has written a book of rare generosity, insight and skill.  The characters are vivid and in the course of 500 pages we come to care for them deeply.  The narrative arc is as beautiful as a well-thrown baseball -- the novel ends as it begins with Schwartz and Henry together on the baseball diamond.

And the themes that emerge -- the value of suffering in our lives, the need to strive for perfection, the importance of friendship and love -- tell a story as eloquent and as complete as that most elusive no-hitter.

Book 109: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie 

In Luka and the Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie joins the family of notable authors who have tried their hand at juvenile fiction.  

It is a clumsy and disappointing for such an accomplished writer.

Luka's father is dying.  The 12-year-old enters the Magic World to steal the fire of life, which will restore his father's health.

Rushdie's Magic World is a mish-mash of old gods, legends and myths that will be lost on most of the book's young readers.  In a futile effort to appeal to those same readers, Luka's quest is presented as a video game.  Soon after entering the Magic World, Luka discovers that he can accumulate hundreds of lives and that he can "save" stages of his progress.

That overlay -- of a video game -- feels as if Rushdie did not have confidence in his main story.  That lack of assurance is justified, but the author's effort to modernize the quest fails too.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Just My Type is, well, just my type

Book 103: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

 If you have a favorite typeface -- and I do -- than Simon Garfield's Just My Type, subtitled A Book About Fonts, is the book for you.

If you don't have a favorite typeface, you might after reading Garfield's book. It's a fascinating look at how fonts are created, their importance in everything from branding products to signage and their recent proliferation due to the emergence of the home computer. 

No surprise that the brilliant Steve Jobs and his first Macintosh computer make a cameo appearance in the introduction. That Macintosh, loaded with a choice of fonts, "was the beginning of something," Garfield writes, "a seismic shift in our everyday relationship with letters and with type. An innovation that, within another decade or so, would place the word 'font' . . .  in the vocabulary of every computer user."

My favorite font is Palatino, a serif typeface designed by Herman Zapf. Release in 1948, Palatino is prized for its legibility and is one of the 10 most widely used serif typefaces. Zapf also later created Zapf Dingbats -- and who hasn't found a use that font?

Book 107: Stan Musial An American Life by George Vecsey

Stan Musial, one of the greatest ballplayers in the history of the game, deserves better than this disappointing biography by George Vecsey.

It feels as if Vecsey collected a few anecdotes, assembled them in chronological order and -- Voila! -- a biography of Musial.  

Yes, some of the anecdotes are entertaining. Very much so.  Baseball anecdotes have that attribute about them.  But this book simply doesn't compare with the fine biographies of Yogi Berra and Roger Maris that emerged last year.